Anything Is Possible
This week, a new one, Elizabeth Strout’s 2017 book Anything Is Possible. Dena recommended Elizabeth Strout to me; I’ve read Olive Kitteridge, My Name Is Lucy Barton, and this is my fifth read of Anything Is Possible. Yes, I like it.
Possible is a little different from many contemporary novels in that structurally, it is a series of nine stories, linked by reference to and occasional appearance of one character, Lucy Barton, who, notably, is always seen by others in the stories, never having her own perspective. Of note too is that she is an author who lives in New York City, and this is true of the real author, Elizabeth Strout.
The stories are also linked by being about people (including Lucy) who are from the fictional town of Amgash, Illinois. As far as I can tell, only one of the stories, Snow-Blind, was previously published, so we can speculate that Ms. Strout intended for the stories to be published together, i.e. it’s not a collection of previously published works.
Of course, you immediately object that this linked short story format is not unique, and I do not disagree. Sherwood Andersen’s Winesburg, Ohio is similar, and a lot of the heavy hitters—Hemingway, Faulkner—have published linked short stories in one book.
What does this mean—linked short stories? As I said, they are linked by reference to geographic place and a character Lucy Barton. Other characters also are referred to in more than one tale—Tommy Guptill and his wife, Abel Blaine and his sister Dottie, Charlie Macauley, and Patty Nicely, and of course, Lucy’s brother Pete. Moreover, each story is linked to the others by their treatment of particular themes and by a consistent narrator’s voice.
The stories are all in third person and in the simple past tense, with sections that dip back in time. A close reading will reveal that, although most of the stories seem to occur at the same time, there is some movement forward. Pete Barton, who appears in the first story The Sign, tells his sister Lucy in Sister, that he’s been working at the soup kitchen with Tommy Guptill and his wife for about a year; in The Sign, the story is about Pete and Tommy but there is no mention of a soup kitchen, so we can infer that at least a year has passed between the events in The Sign and those in Sister. We also have the early stirrings of love between Patty Nicely and Charlie Macauley in Windmills and The Hit Thumb Theory, and then the later mention in Mississippi Mermaid, that they have become a couple. And one of the stories, Snow-Blind, occurs largely in the past. (This story, about the actress Annie Appleby, is a kind of mise en abyme for the whole book—more on this to come). Actually, most of the bad things that the characters are dealing with in the book’s present have occurred in the past. The book’s present is a time of reconciliation and recovery—but that doesn’t mean it’s always happy.
Can you read each story as an independent short story without reading the rest?
Yessir, and that is one of the reasons this book is such an achievement. However, there is a synergy created by reading the whole thing, as each story contextualizes the others, creating a sort of tapestry effect, meaning you wind up with a richer perspective than you’d get from just one character’s perspective. A tapestry dealing with shame, trauma, and redemption through connection.
As I have said, the narrator repeats some information across the stories, and this repetition, I believe, works to tie each story together. For instance, most of the stories—especially in the first half—state that the events are occurring or did occur in Amgash, Illinois. The present time of the book is the reference time for the characters and narrator. For instance, Windmills begins with the narrator stating, “A few years ago…” Most stories reference Lucy Barton, as well as the memories most of the main characters have of how poor her family was, that she escaped and became a writer in New York. Many characters appear in more than one story, for instance Angelina, Patty Nicely’s friend, who journeys to Italy to see her mother in Mississippi Mary. Charlie Macauley has his own story, The Hit-Thumb Theory, but does a “walk-on” in others, Windmills, and Dottie’s Bed and Breakfast. Annie Appleby figures prominently in Dottie’s Bed and Breakfast, and then has her own story, Snow-Blind.
These things are obviously not coincidence but the work of Ms. Strout who wanted to create running threads that would connect different parts.
Lucy Barton is arguably the center and of course, comes to us through other books, an interesting phenomenon in itself. In this book, she is an adult, a successful author who has left her family and small-town roots and has never returned—till the events recounted in Sister. Most of the other characters know of her and harbor feelings of anger and envy at her seeming success and escape. They see her on TV screens; they encounter her at author events in other cities, they gossip about her to each other. She is remembered, along with her siblings, as being desperately poor and abused by her parents. She is a kind of lightning rod, if you will, to many of the others.
“The Barton family had been outcasts, even in a town like Amgash, their extreme poverty and strangeness making this so. The oldest child, a man named Pete, lived there now, the middle child was two towns away, and the youngest, Lucy Barton, had fled many years ago…”
The narrator in The Sign.
“”I was supposed to be named for my aunt, but at the last minute my mom said, Fuck her…She’s a bitch. She thinks she’s better than any of us…I’ve never met her. She lives in New York…”
Lila Lane in Windmills.
“I saw Lucy on TV a few years ago. Hot shot. She wrote a book or something. Lives in New York…”
Patty Nicely’s mother in Windmills.
“And this made him think of Lucy Barton again, how terribly poor she had been as well, how he went as a kid to stay with her family…she would go with him to look for food in the dumpster…”
Abel Blaine in The Gift.
Lucy is the one who the characters believe escaped the trauma of their lives. But this is an idealization. It is in Sister that the reader learns more of the truth about Lucy and how she has not been able to escape her roots.
‘Kay, let’s adjourn there and return next time.
Till then, my friends.